Keating's Departure Gives Bishops Image Problems

June 17, 2003

In the struggle by the nation's Catholic bishops to persuade the laity that they are being open and honest in dealing with the scandal of sexually abusive priests, the last thing they needed was the departure of Frank Keating as chairman of a national lay review board that is examining the bishops' performance.

Though Keating had planned to stay only a year anyway, he is leaving under fire, after making intemperate remarks about the bishops' penchant for covering up wrongdoing. But whatever the reason, his departure doesn't help the bishops with their image makeover.

A year ago, the bishops named Keating, a former Oklahoma governor, to chair the national review board, a high-powered body of lay Catholics whose job is to examine how well the bishops are cleaning up the mess.

It was no secret that Keating was not a diplomat, but a politician and a former prosecutor, accustomed to using colorful words to make his point. That was a useful quality, because his independent image helped the bishops establish the credibility of the board.

The current crisis arose when some bishops - notably Cardinal Roger Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles - balked at responding to a survey the board had ordered, to find out how many priests have been accused of sexual abuse. In an interview published last week in the Los Angeles Times, Keating's frustration with the bishops bubbled over. "To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy," Keating said.

That over-the-top remark, plus Keating's comment that Mahony listens "too much to his lawyer and not enough to his heart," irked Mahony. Other board members felt that Keating had gone too far and should resign. So he's leaving.

The bishops' past failures on this issue have made their every move suspect. So this flap will inevitably be seen as new evidence that they are too secretive and too thin-skinned. If they look honestly in the mirror, that's exactly how the bishops should see themselves.


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